After seven years of failure, Toronto FC looks to star power for MLS reboot
TORONTO - After months of speculation, Toronto FC is finally set to introduce the men it hopes will take the underachieving MLS team to the promised land — England international striker Jermain Defoe and U.S. international midfielder Michael Bradley.
The club has already announced the signing of Defoe, with the 31-year-old Spurs star set to be unveiled at a news conference Monday morning at the huge high-tech sports bar owned by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment across the street from the Air Canada Centre.
The invitation said nothing about the 26-year-old Bradley although his former club AS Roma has already announced the American has been sold to Major League Soccer for US$10 million. A source confirmed that Bradley's signing is part of Monday's TFC gala.
The black hole surrounding Bradley is likely linked to the fact that Defoe's signing brings Toronto to the league limit of three designated players, adding to newly signed Brazilian striker Gilberto and incumbent Argentine midfielder Matias Laba.
Bradley would make four, meaning Toronto has to do something with Laba, either trading him or restructuring his deal short of MLS changing its rules — which has happened before.
The current DP rule allows teams to sign marquee talent without blowing the league's modest salary cap. In 2013, only US$368,750 of a senior designated player's pay counted against a team's US$2.95-million salary cap.
The wave of signings — the 24-year-old Gilberto arrived last month — essentially represents a Toronto FC line in the sand after a sad-sack seven-year existence.
Since entering MLS in 2007, Toronto has compiled a 51-105-66 league record with players and coaches coming and going through an always-moving revolving door.
The team has yet to make the post-season — something both Vancouver and Montreal have done — and its once formidable fan support has slipped to the 10th-best attendance in the 19-team league.
Enter first manager Ryan Nelsen and president Kevin Payne, then MLSE president and CEO Tim Leiweke. Payne did not last the 2013 season but Leiweke hired GM Tim Bezbatchenko and elected to keep Nelsen.
The three amigos then went on a worldwide talent, backed by the deep pockets of the MLSE board.
Toronto has not disclosed financial details of the recent acquisitions but Bradley's transfer fee alone exceeds the 2013 salaries listed for Clint Dempsey and Thierry Henry, the league's highest-paid players.
Add in Defoe's transfer fee, pegged at between six million and eight million pounds (C$10.8 million to C$14.4 million) and lengthy contracts reportedly worth C$7.1 million a year for Bradley and C$8.3 million for Defoe, and Toronto is entering a whole new financial zip code in MLS.
The world's best soccer players are paid crazy money.
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, reportedly makes 288,000 pounds a week (C$517,845) after taxes. Toronto likely overpaid to get both Defoe and Bradley to come to North America, which has yet to match the top leagues elsewhere in terms of reputation, competition or compensation.
In exchange for a huge outlay, Toronto is getting battle-hardened internationals from two of the finest leagues in the world. And both arrive at or near their peak.
Defoe is a proven goal-scorer who left home at 14 after winning a scholarship to the F.A. National School of Excellence at Lilleshall and signed his first pro deal at 16. Bradley, the son of former U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley, left home at 13 to join the U.S. residency program, before signing with the MLS MetroStars at 16 and moving to Europe at 18 to become an influential midfield general.
Gilberto has largely been forgotten in the recent hoopla but the young striker scored 14 goals for a team headed for relegation out of Brazil's top league this season. One ranking TFC official predicted Gilberto may score more goals than Defoe.
Add in former league MVP Dwayne De Rosario and the off-season acquisitions of Brazilian midfielder Jackson and U.S., international fullback Justin Morrow to a young roster and there is reason to hope.
Stil not everyone is convinced coming to Toronto make sense for any other reason than money.
"Defoe, to put it bluntly, is joining a club where the limitations are limitless," wrote Daniel Taylor in a blog for England's Guardian newspaper. "A club with plenty of cash and a showy front but nothing behind it, like a Kinder chocolate egg with no toy inside — the equivalent in standard, you could say, of a side in the bottom six of the (English second-tier) Championship, if you were putting it generously."
Defoe, for his part, says there are several reasons for coming.
One was the offer of a new four-year deal when he only had one year left at Spurs. But he also cited his family, which has endured a string of personal tragedies in recent years.
Defoe had to fly home from England's training base in Poland before Euro 2012 when his father died of throat cancer. Later that summer, his cousin Hannah was electrocuted in a freak accident at a pool in St Lucia.
His half-brother Jade, a musician, died after a brutal street attack in 2009 and Jade's grandmother died after collapsing at the funeral. A 78-year-old cousin was stabbed to death in 2011 at his home in St. Lucia, where Defoe's family is from.
"On a personal note, the things that we've been through over the last few years in the family and sometimes it is nice to have a change," Defoe told Sky Sports News before flying to Toronto.
"I only had a year left on my contract at Tottenham and that was the situation. So I supposed. If you've got a year left and someone comes in and offers you four, then I suppose you've got to think about it and consider your options. So it's as simple as that."
Leaving Tottenham after nine years won't be easy, he added.
"I've always said I've had a special relationship with the fans over the years but you know it's football, players move on," he said. "I think at the age of 31 it's a great opportunity for me and my family."
Defoe will return to England and Spurs after Monday's news conference. He will stay with Tottenham through the end of February.